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After recognizing breakaway regions, Putin orders 'peacekeeping' troops to Ukraine

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Vladimir Putin is testing the U.S. and its NATO allies. He recognized two separatist regions of Ukraine as independent, even though they are tethered closely to Russia. Then he sent in Russian troops. Putin says they're not there to start a war, but rather to, quote, "keep the peace." So how does the West respond, and what do Russians make of Putin's land grab?

NPR's Charles Maynes is in the southern Russian city of Rostov-on-Don, near the Ukrainian border. Charles, thanks for being here.

CHARLES MAYNES, BYLINE: Happy to do it.

MARTIN: So what are you hearing from Russians there?

MAYNES: Well, you know, first of all, you know, much of these events happened here late into the night. So Russians here in Rostov and elsewhere woke up this morning to the news and a new reality - you know, that the Kremlin had taken actions that could lead to war or crushing sanctions, or possibly both. And we now have news that Russian tanks are in these so-called republics as part of what Russia says is its peacekeeping force. Russian state TV is showing celebrations in the separatist regions, as well as - I'd been getting messages from Russian nationalists at home. They've long championed independence ever since taking part in a Russian-backed proxy war in east Ukraine in 2014 - really part of this broader Kremlin effort to undermine Ukraine's ambitions to join NATO and the EU.

But, you know, less clear, I think, is what the rest of Russia will make of this, should violence in Ukraine spiral, and that certainly looks possible. Two Ukrainian soldiers were killed overnight, dozens wounded. The separatists are now talking about seizing additional territory in the Donbas now that they have Russian backing. And meanwhile, Russia is accusing Ukraine of shelling civilians, even staging attacks on Russian territory here where I am in Rostov Oblast - this is near the border again - and all this could be used as a pretext for further military action, which, of course, is what the U.S. and allies have been warning about all along. I mean, just on a personal note, I made a visit to the border yesterday, and I could see tanks and military vehicles tucked in the woods to the side of the main highway. And that's just one part of this large force of some 150,000 Russian troops now that seems to be an invasion force.

MARTIN: Ukraine's President Zelenskyy is trying to reassure Ukrainians, but that is a really tough job right now, right? I mean, after Russia took Crimea in 2014, now it's recognized these two Russian-backed regions of Ukraine as independent?

MAYNES: Yeah, you know, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy gave a speech late, late last night, calling the Russian move a violation of Ukraine's sovereignty. He said Ukraine wanted peace but would not give anything away to anyone. He also called for a clear and effective response from the international community. Let's listen in.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT VOLODYMYR ZELENSKYY: (Non-English language spoken).

MAYNES: So here Zelenskyy is saying that this is the moment when Ukraine finds out who its real friends and partners are and who will continue to push back against Russia with just words alone. You know, I think it's fair to say this is really the latest example of Zelenskyy's frustration with Western powers who have been warning Russia behind the scenes of what could happen if it attacks Ukraine, rather than openly spelling out what will happen.

MARTIN: Charles, I want to ask you about the meeting, the speech that Putin had yesterday because he's such a black box - right? - on the international stage. It's very rare to be able to understand exactly what's happening in his mind or his decision-making process. So every opportunity to see him in a public setting gives us some clues. So what did you see in his meetings yesterday that were put on public television in his speech?

MAYNES: Yeah, this was a really, really angry speech. And what struck me was that although much of it was a chauvinistic harangue about Ukraine, the other part focused on what Putin sees as the West taking advantage of Russia after the end of the Cold War - you know, anger over NATO expansion eastward towards Russia's borders and about what Putin argues are Western designs to contain or even destroy Russia today. And Putin's obsessions with these topics haven't been resolved in any way by this move into the Donbas, which suggests that yesterday's drama is a prelude to more brinkmanship or perhaps even conflict to come.

MARTIN: NPR's Charles Maynes, thank you.

MAYNES: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Rachel Martin is a host of Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.

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